SCREAM, AND KEEP SCREAMING TILL IT STOPS—that’s the way to have the most fun on a roller coaster. You have to become one with it, and the way you do that is by “orchestrating” its every rattle, turn, and downward swoop. Well, that’s my theory, at least.
I’ve had plenty of chances to test it lately. Thanks to new technologies that allow coasters to perform heretofore impossible feats, the country is going scare-crazy. According to Susan Mosedale, who monitors “thrill rides” for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, there are 56 new roller coasters operating in the United States this year, up from 39 last year and 27 in 1997. Texas is in the forefront with 5— Batman the Ride at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Serial Thriller at Six Flags Astroworld in Houston, the Steel Eel at SeaWorld San Antonio, and Poltergeist and Boomerang at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, also in San Antonio. As many as 50 are due to open next year. This is the most activity since the golden age of the roller coaster, about 75 years ago.
Many recently built coasters have elaborate themes and do amazing, stomach-flopping things that not everyone will appreciate. “In the seventies just going upside down was considered earthshaking,” notes Tim Baldwin, a regional representative for the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana branch of American Coaster Enthusiasts ( ACE), a 5,800-member group of die-hard riders. “Now they have coasters you ride standing or in cars that run under the tracks, so your feet are dangling free. I’ve heard that next year there’s going to be one you ride lying down.”
Indeed, Superman, the Escape, which opened in 1997 at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, stands 415 feet tall and hits one hundred miles per hour. This year Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, launched Medusa, the first floorless, frontless, sideless coaster; riders are secured to a seat by a shoulder harness, and hurtle along directly over the coaster’s wheels at speeds of up to 61 miles per hour. At Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, the brand-new BuzzSaw Falls offers both a traditional rip on the rails and a flume ride, dropping nine and a half stories (nearly one hundred feet) into water, then splashing atop some river rapids before hooking back up to the tracks for another long climb and fall. Gwazi, at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida, is a “dueling coaster”—two coasters, actually, that weave around each other, separated at times by only a few feet.
As a lifelong fan, I wanted to experience the state of the art in Texas, and so I rode. I rode nearly thirty roller coasters, all but the kiddie coasters, at Texas’ four major theme parks, and I rode many of them twice—once in the front, where I got both a smoother ride and a better view of what was about to happen to me, and once in the rear, where the